What is Existential Psychotherapy?
Strickly speaking, existential Psychotherapy and counselling is more akin to an approach to the therapeutic work (and to life) rather than a type of therapy. However, this does is no way minimise the importance and benefits of an existentially orientated psychotherapy.
One way of thinking about existential psychotherapy is to see it as a philosophical stance, rather than a rigid framework within which the clinician works. As such it rejects the deterministic view of human nature found in more traditional psychoanalysis and the behaviour school approach. Existential psychotherapy concerns itself with the problems if existing, or living and sees clients’ suffering as their inability to accept life as it really is rather than that their symptoms are manifestations of mental illness.
In existential psychotherapy the clinician works with the client to help them to find purpose and meaning in their lives and through the therapeutic alliance works with the client to live a more ‘authentic’ life. In existential therapy, it is through the therapeutic relationship that ‘inauthentic’ ways of being in the world come to light. Put more simply, it is within the therapy that the client finds safety and trust to explore the myriad of ways that they hide from themselves and others; how they avoid the realities of life. Whilst these realities can be hard to accept, it is only through embracing them that clients can find authentic – meaningful and purposeful – way of living their lives.
And, it is through the courage of accepting life as it is and embracing ones limitations that many clients find their suffering and symptoms disappear; what in other types of therapy may be termed symptoms, or mental health problems.
Benefits of Existential Psychotherapy
In the existential approach, both counsellors and psychotherapists seek to come alongside the client as human beings. What this means is that they seek to understand the client’s subjective experience of the world and their place in it. If all neuroses and psychoses are fundamentally solutions to the problem of life and how to find meaning, then the dilemma is one faced by us all, the psychotherapist included.
Existential psychotherapy seeks to help clients find more constructive ways of creating meaning and alleviating their suffering. For example, existential psychotherapy can be particularly useful in helping former addicts construct more meaningful and multi-faceted lives where they can bear their distress and seek a wider range of healthy relationships and behaviours in lieu of their behaviour or drug of choice.
In the modern world where prescribed meaning is increasingly absent – religion, family, career – the existential approach can be extremely helpful in grounding clients and enabling them to firstly recognise the ordinariness of their humanity – all human beings must find purpose and meaning. Secondly, the therapeutic relationship can be a vital collaboration helping clients to work out what will enable them to feel fulfilled and that they have meaning.
In essence, existential psychotherapy is about finding meaning in a world increasingly devoid of meaning. A life lived without substantial meaning causes suffering often experienced as anxiety and depression.
Mark Vahrmeyer and Dr. Simon Cassar are both trained in-depth in existential psychotherapy and apply a relational approach to their work. If you are interested in finding out more, please get in touch.